The Deeper Issue of Nursing Burnout: Why It's not just about changing jobs or changing the system

After two years of the pandemic exacerbating the previously existing nursing shortages, nurses are burned out and leaving not just their jobs but the profession.  There are many who have ideas on how to shift healthcare organizations to improve nurse retention and thus improve patient outcomes; I have some myself.  But one thing I see few talking about is how to help the nurses with their burnout.  Whether you are a healthcare leader hoping to help your nurses or a nurse yourself, I’m sharing this in hopes of helping nurses both feel good again and be able to offer the highest quality care (if they choose to stay in nursing).  Read on.

While changing jobs and careers or even the systems nurses work in may seem attractive, there is a bigger issue at hand here:  The levels of stress built up that create burnout get stuck in the body*.  They follow you wherever you go; so whether nurses stay in their current jobs, find a new one, or the systems they work in change this stress in the body is still there.  Thus, the first step in burnout recovery is releasing that stress from the body.

Releasing stress from the body is actually quite simple, but not always easy.  The strategies are things that during the best of times we likely do regularly.  What makes them hard is getting ourselves to do these things especially when we are having a hard time.

For example, the most effective way to release stress through the body is movement (yep, exercise).  This is because the chemicals our body creates to respond to stress are designed to help us move away from the danger or stressor (there is more on that in my short e-book if you’re interested).  When we are under ongoing stress (what our bodies see as threats to safety), we need to release that stress daily.  The most effective way is at least 30 minutes of physical exercise.

You might be thinking “HOW?!?!!  I’m/they’re too exhausted to even think about that.”

I get it; when we’re burnout out we can feel so exhausted the thought of doing anything - even things we know will help - seems ridiculous.

I believe there is a way and it starts small.  Rather than thinking about “ugh, now I have to get at least 30 minutes of exercise in too”, what if you focus instead on first creating the exercise habit.

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, recommends we start with our intention.

Ask yourself:

  • Why do you want to do this new habit?  (e.g., to release stress from your body so you feel better)
  • Who would you be if you started this new habit? (e.g., a nurse free of burnout/with less burnout, a resilient person)
  • What type of person does this that is in line with who you want to be? (e.g., nurses free of burnout/with less burnout exercise regularly, people who are healthy, fit, and strong exercise, nurses who are resilient exercise, calm people do yoga) 

Getting clear on the answers to these questions can help motivate you to get started.  The only right answers are the ones that are true for you.  Then identify a very, very small first step - what author Laura Vanderkam calls a “better than nothing goal”.  This could be exercising daily for two minutes.  Or doing one yoga pose every day.  It needs to be something you can and will do every day no matter what.  At this stage of the habit it’s not about the results.  It’s about building the habit.  So by doing a yoga post every day, you are setting yourself up to be a calm person.

Of course, you won’t just keep doing only two minutes or one yoga pose.  But start there.  Then slowly build up over time.  And on those days you aren’t feeling it?  Do your 'better than nothing goal' to keep the habit strong.

There are other ways to release stress from the body; if you are interested in a deeper exploration of this topic and those other methods, you are welcome to download my free e-Book Beyond Nursing Burnout here.

May life find you healthy and well.

Jen Barnes is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker in private practice in Minneapolis, MN.  She specializes in complex trauma, PTSD, stress, and grief.  The daughter and sister of nurses she has a passion for empowering nurses recover from burnout.  Her program Resilient Nurses, Satisfied Patients helps hospitals and clinics support their nurses to increase nurse retention, improve patient outcomes, and increase patient satisfaction.  To schedule a strategy call for your hospital or clinic, click here:



* For more on how stress gets stuck in the body, check out my free e-book Beyond Nursing Burnout at:


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